A Chicagoan studying at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign died in Brazil this week and, in an unrelated incident, a second student went missing over the weekend while swimming off that country’s coast, university officials said Thursday.
Ashley Walls, daughter of frequent political candidate William “Dock” Walls, died Monday after apparently contracting a disease in the South American country where she was studying, according to a statement from the university and a Facebook post by her father.
Another U. of I. student, Richard Fu, was swimming Saturday and went missing after being pulled away from shore, the university said. They said Brazilian authorities were searching for Fu, 20, off the coast of Arraial do Cabo, a city near Rio de Janeiro.
Mary Kalantzis, dean of the university’s College of Education, said in a letter that Walls, 29, died in the coastal city of Florianopolis, where she had been conducting research for several weeks. Kalantzis said Walls was the president of a black alumni group and active in the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. She was a doctoral student in education policy studies, officials said.
“Dock” Walls wrote on Facebook that funeral arrangements were pending and that he was traveling back to Chicago from Brazil on Thursday.
Fu is a crop sciences major at U of I who went swimming in the Atlantic Ocean with two other students Saturday, said Robert Hauser, dean of the university’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.
Hauser said Brazilian authorities had widened the search area and that the university was coordinating with Fu’s family to help them get to Brazil. Fu is an American citizen who grew up in Taiwan, according to a university spokeswoman. Fu is in Brazil on a study abroad program and has been there a few weeks, the spokeswoman said.
A spokesman for the U.S. State Department confirmed Walls’ death and said consular officials were working with her family. He didn’t have information on Fu. Officials with the Brazilian Embassy in Washington didn’t have information on either case.
“We are all saddened by the news of what has happened to two of our students in the past few days,” they said. “Our focus right now is working with our partners and government contacts in Brazil to help their families navigate this difficult time. Both of these students were admired and respected by their peers and by the faculty and staff who knew them here at Illinois. Our collective thoughts are with their families and friends.”
Walls’ father, who ran for mayor against Rahm Emanuel in 2011, is ubiquitous on local ballots. He has lost races for mayor, city clerk, governor and Congress. He couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday but wrote on Facebook that his daughter was “an extremely instrumental advocate working to improve conditions for all U of I students, faculty and staff.”
Ashley Walls had experience in theater and urban planning and cared deeply about educational inequality, according to her Ph.D. adviser, Adrienne Dixson. She said Walls arrived in Brazil a few weeks ago and planned to spend about two months there researching the Theatre of the Oppressed, a Brazilian institution focused on empowering disadvantaged people through acting.
“She was really interested in kind of bringing all of those interests together to address the kind of inequities she saw in urban communities and wanting to use the arts as a way to help organize communities,” Dixson said.
David Requa, a doctoral classmate, said Walls “was constantly putting things together and making things happen.”
“She was energetic,” Requa said. “She had a scholar’s curiosity and a drive to try to find root causes of inequities and see how they could be done away with — how they could be evened out in a way that gave everyone a fair chance.”